It was an eventful regular season for Lancaster-Lebanon League girls basketball teams, with both upstarts and perennial powers making their respective cases as the best the league has to offer.
But those were only opening arguments. It's time now for those teams - at least the eight that have qualified for the circuit's postseason - to prove their cases in court, er, on the court.
Starting Monday night with first-round action at a gym near you, the annual L-L tourney will get underway with an eye toward crowning a champion Friday night.
Get there early and plan on staying for the duration. There figures to be plenty of high court drama and theatrics to witness. And plenty of quality hoops, too. You won't want to miss it.
So without further delay, let's take a closer look at what may be in store for those opening-round matches on Monday night. All games tip off at 7 p.m., with the semifinals slated for neutral sites on Wednesday, and the title clash, as noted, set for Friday at either Annville-Cleona or Warwick.
Enjoy the games.
Cocalico at Cedar Crest: The Section One champion Falcons come in at 19-2 with both losses, to Manheim Township and Lower Dauphin, coming by a single point and in the closing seconds. Suffice it to say the Falcons, led by speedy junior point guard Ariel Jones and shot-blocking junior center Alyssa Austin, look more than primed to defend the L-L crown they wore a season ago.
"Just because we won it last year doesn't mean anything this year," said Cedar Crest coach Jim Donmoyer, downplaying the Falcons' status as defending champs. "We're proud that we won it last year. We worked hard and we deserved to win it last year. Now we're in the position to defend it. But it's eight teams, 0-0 records, and whoever wins it has to win three games. Our regular season is over, now our second season starts."
"But being defending champ, no one is afraid of us and we're not afraid of anyone."
The road to a potential repeat begins with Section Three runner-up Cocalico, which went 18-4, including a pair of losses to Northern Lebanon and one to Lancaster Catholic. Safe to say the Falcons won't be looking past the Eagles, who are led by senior forward and 1,000-point scorer Emily White.
"We played them in the summer and I've seen four of their games (on video)," Donmoyer said of Cocalico, which fell to Crest in the L-L semis last season. "They're a team that starts with White and they have a big kid (Megan) Gingrich, who plays inside. Those are their two main players. It's pretty much the same team we saw last year, a year later. They only lost four games and they don't have any bad losses. They'll be ready to play."
If the Falcons are sufficiently prepared themselves, they should be able to survive, which would set up a championship-like semifinal with Lancaster Catholic. Cedar Crest and Lancaster Catholic are regarded by many as the two best teams in the league, and the winner of that matchup, if it comes to fruition, figures to have a leg up in the league title quest.
"I'm not overlooking Cocalico," Donmoyer said, "That's our first and foremost thought, our worry. If we get by that we'll see who we play, and if it's Lancaster Catholic and we're supposed to be the two favorites, it should be a hell of a game."
Elizabethtown at Lancaster Catholic: On paper at least, this is the most lopsided of the openers. And that's no disrespect to Elizabethtown, but rather a tribute to how formidable the Crusaders are.
Led by freshman phenom Kiki Jefferson and senior post Caroline Scarff, Catholic totes a 21-1 record and its formidable press and mystique into the contest. Its only loss is a 70-67 non-league setback to Trinity on Dec. 29 and its only real test in league play came in a 53-49 home win over Northern Lebanon on Jan. 13.
So good luck to Elizabethtown, which comes in at 12-10 and led by Marena Lonardi's 11.3 points per game. To their credit, the Bears own a win over Section Two champ Ephrata and beat a decent Warwick team twice. But they'll most assuredly have their work cut out for them on Monday night against the Crusaders.
Lebanon Catholic at Ephrata: The Beavers' focus, as always, is on adding to their district title collection later this month. That being said Catholic, the L-L's smallest school, is pleased and proud to have the opportunity to mix it up with some of the bigger kids on the block, and likes its chances to have some success along the way.
"I'm proud that we qualified for league playoffs, and we're taking a little bit different approach than last year," said Catholic coach Patti Hower, whose squad fell to McCaskey in the first round last season. "Last year we had to play McCaskey and we were mostly freshmen, so I think this year they have a little bit better idea of what it is and have a little bit more confidence. I think they think we can make a good showing."
A balanced and productive starting lineup of emerging sophomore wing Neesha Pierre (12.9 ppg), 1,000-point scorer Allie Warren, point guard Mariah Sholly and excellent role players Celine Mars and Jayden Shellehamer make the 15- 5 Beavers a force to be reckoned with and then some.
The first obstacle in their path is Section Two champ Ephrata, which sits at 13-9 and is led by junior guard Caroline Stauffer (13,4 points per game), but it's not an insurmountable one like McCaskey was last year.
"McCaskey was just so athletic and big," Hower said. "We match up much, much better than we did with McCaskey. We definitely feel it's a winnable game. Not that we will, but we have a shot at it."
And if the Beavers can earn a trip to the semifinals and/or finals it will only enhance their chances of adding another Class A district title to their collection and making a lengthy state tournament run.
"It definitely will help us when we get into districts and hopefully states," Hower said. "And if we win that first round you're basically talking we're one of the four best teams in the league. Being a small school, that's hard to achieve sometimes. They could really take pride in that."
Manheim Township at Northern Lebanon: The Vikings enjoyed a thrill ride of a regular season, going 21-1 and winning the program's first Section Three title in 30 years. The question is can they follow that up with some postseason success?
A very tough first-round opponent awaits in Section One runner-up Township, which went 15-7 after an 0-4 start, but Northern Lebanon's hard-nosed starting five of Zoe Zerman, Megan Brandt, Amber Kintzer, Liz Voight and Cassiah Ray isn't likely to back down from the challenge.
"With different teams you worry about different things," NL coach Ken Battistelli said. "You hope they're not nervous, you hope they shoot well, With this team, I'm pretty confident they're gonna come out and fight to the death. I think we'll come out and play with everything we've got. I don't think we're gonna get out-hustled or out-toughed."
For a group with little postseason experience, it might be tempting to think of the Vikings as a happy-to-be-there squad. But the aforementioned competitive fire they possess makes that approach unlikely.
"It's really exciting to be in it, but we're trying not to think about just being in it," Battistelli said. "We want to win the first game, and then if we do, the second game and so on. We look at it as just an opportunity. I hope we're not shell-shocked just to be in it."